When I was called to serve as Executive Director at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center, I thought a lot about the connection of “retreat” to “rest” and “rest” to “Sabbath.” Over my years of teaching pastoral care, I had become increasingly aware of the necessity of Sabbath rest and the propensity among clergy (myself included) to ignore the fourth commandment. The statistics on clergy stress and burnout point to the ill effects (physically, mentally, relationally, spiritually) of overworking and continuously neglecting one’s needs for the sake of contributing to others’ needs. The same is true for us all—not clergy alone—and even more so in the midst of a global pandemic. And so, for the past month, Sabbath rest has been our theme on Retreat Where You Are.
We’ve approached Sabbath as a gift to be received, an invitation to accept, a protest to declare, and a practice to cultivate. Professor Travis West has reminded us that the rest and joy of Sabbath transform us. It reminds us of these truths: I am not what I do. I am not what I have. I am not what people say about me.
As I’ve noticed both my craving for Sabbath and my resistance to it (more often than I wish), I’ve been reminded of how we can so easily turn a gift into a task, a promise into a threat. When Sabbath functions primarily as a demand – as law – it loses its life. Instead of freeing us, it traps us.
I first learned about Sabbath in the religious education program at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, the parish in which I was baptized as an infant. My understanding was thin, however: “keep the Sabbath” in my mind got reduced to “go to church.” In my late teens, while attending Bible School, I learned to connect Sabbath to the practices of worship, prayer, and contemplation (though we didn’t call it that). That was better, but still Sabbath functioned predominantly as a command that I should obey. Later, I worked for an agency associated with the Christian Reformed Church and then eventually lived and worked in Holland, MI, a hub for Dutch Reformed spirituality. I discovered that some folks took the divine decree part of Sabbath to another level altogether. I was warned not to mow my lawn on Sundays . . . while I was mowing my lawn one Sunday afternoon. I learned that you couldn’t buy alcohol on Sundays when a grocer ran down the aisle shouting at me to put my bottle of Cabernet back on the shelf. I was a bit startled. Apparently, I shouldn’t have been grocery shopping either.
The biblical narratives portray a very different picture of Sabbath: while God’s creative work is completed by rest, human work is preceded by rest. Human life begins with receiving and resting in what God has already done for us—given us life and love. In this rest, we discover true freedom, our freedom to love God, to love others, and to love ourselves, all of which frequently comes to expression in ordinary acts of kindness, generosity, patience, and gentleness.
On this Sunday—days before the most contentious election of our lives—I hope we can find ways of receiving anew the gift of Sabbath, so that we can experience the freedoms and joys of life together, so that we can take up our work again with strength and hope rather than weariness and desperation. And if you find yourself succumbing to some task-master today, then perhaps reading this short poem out loud will help you to welcome the rest, freedom, and joy that is yours this day:
Even in the desert,
even in the wilderness,
May you keep it.
Light the candles,
say the prayers:
and be our guest.
*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)